Evolution of airpower

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Louis Pine
  • 20th Attack Squadron commander
“We have just won a war with a lot of heroes flying around in planes. The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all … Take everything you’ve learned about aviation in war, throw it out the window, and let’s go to work on tomorrow’s aviation. It will be different from anything the world has ever seen.”
Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, 1945

Throughout the Air Force’s 70-year history, the evolution of airpower has been nothing short of remarkable. Here at Whiteman Air Force Base (AFB), a microcosm of benchmarks is on display every day. The capabilities of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, B-2 Spirit, and MQ-9 Reaper have proven their effectiveness in combat and have already shaped the future of airpower. In particular, the demand for remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 has been insatiable. Over the past decade, as Creech AFB, Nevada, experienced exponential growth, it became clear the Air Force needed to expand the RPA mission to other bases – enter Whiteman AFB.

The history of the 20th Attack Squadron (ATKS) can be traced back to the World War II era, then called the 20th Transport Squadron. From 1940 to 1949, the 20th was responsible for hauling cargo and troops around the Panama Canal Zone. Sixteen years later, the unit was reactivated as the 20th Tactical Air Support Squadron, performing combat missions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Utilizing O-1 Bird Dog, O-2 Skymaster, and OV-10 Bronco aircraft, the 20th served as Forward Air Controllers, flying interdiction missions along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In 1973, the squadron was deactivated, but their work in Vietnam would lay the foundation for the future of the 20th. The squadron was reactivated at Whiteman AFB as the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron in 2011. Its mission: supporting coalition forces overseas, conducting persistent attack and reconnaissance operations. However, as global engagement increased and missions evolved, the year 2016 saw another squadron re-designation, becoming the 20th ATKS, and eventually transitioning to the bigger, more capable MQ-9 in 2017.

It requires a team of dedicated professionals to ensure the 20th mission achieves success – day in, day out. From the aircrew flying the lines, the intelligence analysts in the mission planning and execution cell, the expert maintainers, and to our support personnel – all playing vital roles to ensure the 20 ATKS can support any tasking from combatant commanders around the globe. This is no easy feat in a 24/7 year-round construct. In 2016 alone, the squadron flew over 1,200 sorties, logged more than 16,000 hours, and employed 187 Hellfire missiles. Additionally, crews conducted over 80 buddy-lases (providing terminal weapons guidance for other aircraft). With pronounced and aggregated synergy, the unit was responsible for eliminating more than 250 enemy combatants from the battlefield.

It wasn’t long ago that this instrumental concept was inconceivable to generations of warriors before us; however, visionaries, like Gen. Hap Arnold had limitless beliefs. The concept of remotely launching an aircraft from the other side of the world via satellite, coupled with the ability to deliver precision effects has taken the Air Force to new heights. Technology aside, the success of our mission still requires efforts of countless Airmen around the world to continue the tradition of excellence and to recognize that we all play a vital role in ensuring our Nation’s security in the ever growing threats of today … and tomorrow.